by Michael Schulson
It makes sense that Barack Obama would describe Marilynne Robinson as one of his favorite novelists. Like a great politician, Robinson has a knack for making the small details of American life seem freighted with cosmic significance.
Unlike a politician, Robinson works in a lonely profession, and in person she’s reserved—warm but quiet, with a ready laugh. She speaks fluently and frankly about topics that few Americans, let alone public figures, would touch with anything besides platitudes—theology, Calvinism, metaphysics, and redemption; the nature of grace and sin. She is decidedly left-wing in her politics, and unabashedly theistic in her worldview.
Robinson teaches at the University of Iowa’s Iowa Writers Workshop. She has won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (for her 2005 novel “Gilead”) and a National Book Critics Circle award for “Lila,” which came out last year. In September, Obama interviewed her about her work, in a wide-ranging conversation subsequently published in The New York Review of Books.
In a new essay collection, “The Givenness of Things,” Robinson touches on everything from neuroscience to the New Testament. She seems as comfortable talking about physics and philosophy as she is discussing God or capitalism. The collection includes a powerful essay on the role of fear in American political discourse, a recurring concern for Robinson in recent years.
I met Robinson in a hotel lobby in Atlanta, where she was receiving an award from the American Academy of Religion. Over coffee, we spoke about fear, faith and why Moses would have advocated for retail workers.
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